Is Huawei a Security Threat, Friend or Foe? — Or All Three?

The worldwide use of mobile technology has increased by over 200% in the past five years, making building out a 5G mobile network for the American mobile market imperative. It’s critical for businesses to remain competitive and important for citizens. However, compared to current mobile speeds around the world, America ranks a distant 30th — Croatia has faster speeds. While most American telecom companies have introduced 5G to their networks, to describe the US roll-out as sluggish would be kind.

Huawei’s Desire to Capitalize on US 5G Market

The one company looking to expedite this and make an inroad into the American 5G market is Chinese tech giant Huawei. But in May of 2019, the Trump administration slammed the brakes on the tech behemoth.

Trump declared “a national emergency” and placed Huawei on the US Entity List. This list, issued by the US Department of Commerce, restricts those on it to severe exporting, re-exporting and transfer rules. It’s essentially a blacklist. The Trump administration felt that Huawei poses an “unacceptable” risk to national security, which includes the infrastructure of the internet.

President Donald Trump claimed that if Hauwei gained access to that kind of infrastructure there could be “potentially catastrophic effects.” There is no denying that security risks in technology are real – isn’t the internet as a whole is one giant security risk.

One of the Trump administration’s chief concerns is that Hauwei “can be compelled by Chinese law to hand over data or spy on behalf of the Chinese government.”

The Role of Telecom Lobbying

All things considered, it would be negligent to ignore the impact of lobbying on behalf of the Telecommunications Services industry. Two of the largest were AT&T who spent about $13 million and Verizon who spent $10 million. Considering that Sprint and T-Mobile are in the middle of a merger, it’s not surprising the Telecom Services industry spent $101 million on lobbying and political contributions in 2019.

Even though America has legally restricted Hauwei from attempting access, the tech giant has been pitching to the European Union with success. Claiming that their new 5G product would be important for markets like the UK, Spain, and Italy, who have a fragmented spectrum market. Going further Hauwei asserts their technology is “one generation ahead” of what is currently available.

The pitch has proven successful. Huawei has signed contracts to establish 5G networks with 47 European vendors, including America’s strongest EU ally, Britain.

UK PM Johnson Defies Trump on Huawei

In a rare defiant move against President Trump, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has greenlit the company’s help in building out its own 5G network. The rationale being that Hauwei will not be included in the country’s “core functions” and only operating in about “35% of the overall network.”

This is much to the chagrin of British conservative and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage.

In a recent op-ed piece, the conservative lighting rod said there was “no room for compromise” and that Britain must reverse course and not partner with Huawei. Farage said that Britain must “remain with the Western democracies that have always been our allies” or risk falling “in with the Chinese Communist Party.”

Farage is parroting what US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said back in December of 2019 in a similar op-ed piece. Pompeo stated that under Chinese Intelligence Law, the Chinese Communist Party can “force any 5G supplier headquartered in China to turn over data and take other actions in secret.” Pompeo claimed that China has been accused of spying in the Czech Republic, Poland, and the Netherlands as well as corrupt practices in countries like Algeria, Belgium, and Sierra Leone.

Pompeo said the US Department of Justice has charged members of the Tianjin hacking group APT 10 of working with the Chinese Ministry for State Security. The DOJ claims that the hackers have attacked dozens of European and American firms stealing both intellectual property and sensitive personal information.

Huawei’s response to all of this has been simple: it’s not a security threat.

Huawei leaders have said that the US has not provided evidence that it works inappropriately with the Chinese government or that it would in the future. They also claim there are ways to mitigate any security risk, ones that have worked in other countries.

‘The US is Right to Treat Huawei as a Security Threat’

In an interview at The Verge, seven China-watchers, professors and politicians were asked if Huawei was a security threat. Six of the seven agree with OpenVPN CEO Francis Dinha who said:  “The US is right to treat Huawei as a security threat…No matter what equipment we use for 5G, there will be security risks.”

The dissenting voice was Qing Wang, Professor of Marketing & Innovation at the University of Warwick. Wang likens Hauwei to another Chinese based e-commerce, retail, and technology company, Alibaba — which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has a valuation of $500 billion (US). Alibaba is considered one of the 10 most valuable companies and is the 59th biggest public company in the world.

For Wang, the tech giant is a textbook case of a great company on the rise. However, they’re being proh9biting from achieving their full potential because of the “anti-globalization policy and sentiment of the US and the ongoing trade war with China.”

One American company feeling the pinch of the blacklisting is Google. Since any American company is unable to do business with Haiwei, the tech company is forbidden from loading its usual native suite of Android and Google apps and services on new Huawei phones. Google issued a release saying that due to the ban on the company they are unable to certify new Hauwei phones, which run on Google’s Android Operating System.

Android & Play legal director Tristan Ostrowki cited “the risk of compromised security either in the devices or via an app that has been tampered with” in an effort to prevent owners from sideloading the missing Google apps.

No Setup of 5G Will Ever Be Risk-Free

There can be no denying two things. One is that 5G is here and it’s inevitable and two, there are security risks. With that being said, there are security risks all over the internet. Are there ways to capitalize on the opportunities of a 5G network and while still marginalizing security risks? I suspect there are.

However, for every security risk thwarted, there are loads of hackers looking for a way to subvert that.

The White House is working with American tech companies to create software to run on the next generation of 5G networks. However, it faces a real problem that in order to do that effectively it would need the telecom and technologies to agree on common engineering standards to run code on any hardware manufacturer. Considering that many of these companies consider that technology to be their lifeblood, that seems unlikely.

Furthermore, even if that happened, it would only lessen — not eliminate — the reliance on Hauwei.

In the tech world, you never want to be playing catch-up. And with America playing catch-up it portends that having the 30th fastest mobile speed in the world will only fall further. It also places the two things America claims to love most, capitalism and Americans, in jeopardy.